ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
For a change, and for those of a bookish inclination, some anecdotal evidence of my Italian literary experience might be informative. When I look back it appears to have had an early foundation. Another person’s imagination can very often influence your own, leading to all sorts of aspirations, one of which in my case was an admiration for things Italian. After all, I didn’t have four Alfa Romeo’s pass through my hands by accident. But that’s quite a different story. So, as far as I can remember, what follows traces that literary journey.
Although the first book I clearly remember reading was ‘Lorna Doone’, which couldn’t be more English, the first book(s) I actually spent my pocket money on were five volumes of Gibbons ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, from a second hand bookshop in Salisbury. I still have them, but the bookshop sadly, is no more. This is merely to indicate that even at the age of fourteen Mr Gibbon has a lot to answer for, as it was he who initiated an inclination to rummage in bookshops for anything with a faintly Italian bias. I have to confess it was not all scholarly stuff or Italian in flavour, and that reading Mickey Spillane novels were interludes that followed in concert with those coming to terms with hormonal pubescence. These, I swear, had no real influence on me at all except a fleeting desire to own a Mackintosh and a trilby! Probably few of my contemporaries remember ‘Mike Hammer’, but Gibbon, it seemed to me, was quite the equal in heroic stuff. Even at that early age I was fascinated by how anyone could spend the time researching such a huge subject as the Roman state while still having time to collate the information into - bar the odd update - the definitive tragic descent of so great a people. All scribbled with a quill pen, and without the Internet! There are parallels to be made in modern times. But I won’t go into that. Evidently, a Miss Wrottesley first received my Gibbon’s little gems for Christmas in 1928. As the entire history was published in 1781 they must have filled many a hopeful stocking before that. Not many in 2018 I fancy, as reading the printed book seems to be going out of fashion.
As a place to start it sets the scene rather well as most of us have a vague conviction that with the Romans modern European history really begins. (Recently I read that the original Egyptians could have been of an earlier Indo European race linked to the ingress of the then emerging Mycenæn civilization. But that’s a mere diversion on a par with Greek authors to whom I am also partial.) Therefore, Tacitus followed Gibbon, but only in the five-volume form of his ‘Histories’, the other nine known volumes mentioned by his peers seem not to have survived. They don’t paint a very pleasant picture of the times, but one has to be aware that it covers a particularly bloody and contemptible period in Roman history. I remember Vitellius in particular as being a debauched and despicable figure. I went off the Romans for a while afterwards, until I swatted up on Trajan and Augustus, who more than restored my faith.
Skipping over the earlier ‘Arthurian’ continental period, there seemed very little scribbling until the Renaissance was weaned from the Middle Ages. By the same sort of dusty method I acquired ‘The Chronicle of Dino Campagni’ which describes the unhealthy state of life in Fourteenth century Florence. Born in 1257 he lived through the vicious struggles of Guelf and Ghibelline, dying in 1324. Thus informed I arrived in Italy many years later adequately briefed that there was little love lost between Florence and Siena. One treads carefully through the racist legal nightmare after reading a chapter headed “Treacherous manœuvres of the Blacks,” which has nothing to do with Africa.
Things got a lot more serious following the political animosity in Florence as I developed a strong literary passion for the ‘Lyrics’ of the Roman poet Horace, not least because he was an acclaimed toper with an equal passion for the ladies, and thus something of a young fellow’s hero. Sadly he had a venomous tongue, constructing savage lyrics to the damsels who’d let him down.
How dares your old wizened throat
My small weaknesses to note?
Twenty years ago you lost
All the charms you e’er could boast.
Blackened teeth, and shrivelled skin
Tell of worse decay within….
And so on, scurrilously dedicated to a less than discrete lady who’d denigrated his fickle passions. He also managed to write a sort of eulogy in praise of himself, which in retrospection, turned out to be true. A short lyric entitled ‘A Prophecy’ is certainly prophetic, given his work is still in circulation two thousand years later.
A monument more durable than brass
Is mine; than kingly pyramids more vast
One that nor countless ages, as they pass,
Nor rotting wet, nor winter’s howling blast
Shall e’er pull down, nor time’s swift flight undo.
Not all of me shall die; some part shall still
Escape the grave.
And so it did, though I fancy he’d wish he was still around to collect the royalties.
My Latin teacher, noticing this hardly invisible enthusiasm for the Italian ethos, along with my struggles to make progress with ‘Orlando Furioso’ an Arthurian type of romance about a Christian knight known in English as Roland, proceeded to bring out a heavy tome describing ‘The Vision of Dante,’ which was his way of saying you’re not even up to Ariosto let alone Ovid. Which was true of the latter. The only thing I remember of his ‘Metamorphoses’ was that it was written in tricky hexameter verse, very windy and heavy with mythology. However, I was much taken with Roland who got into all sorts of scrapes attractive to a young lad. Many years later, while searching through a Naples second hand bookshop, that in time honoured fashion left a dusty collection outside the door at a knock down price of one euro, I came across a 1930’s paperback version, still uncut, in excellent condition. Thinking this an ideal way to tackle the language anew, proudly took it home, only to be told it had little chance of becoming a primer, as it was in an obsolete Italian form, almost unreadable even to a modern native. By the by. My tutor’s enthusiasm for Dante was also greater than mine, for I was not enamoured of a book whose first chapter was entitled ‘Hell’ and commenced:
In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray Gone from the path direct ….’
I thought it looked a long way through ‘Purgatory’ to ‘Paradise’, and no one wants to be reminded they’d lost their way by page six. There was also the problem relating to his divine status. Saints are supposed to have a modicum of influence over their would be neophytes, whereas Dante seems to have had none, except to contemporary comedians. As far as I could make out at the time, Dante seemed to have created three lists: one, of all the miscreants he could identify; another, of those he considered had room for improvement, and finally a group that included Beatrice, who became a cynosure for lovelorn poets down the ages. These three classes were subsequently: thrown into hell, kept waiting in reception, or upgraded to heaven. I suppose writing in the vernacular during the Fourteenth century when Latin was the lingua franca could be counted as cutting edge for the time, but it didn’t seem to say much about his literary influence. In fact it didn’t say much about his linguistic skills either as he was advised not to write it in Latin due to his poor grasp of the language. Of such circumstance is genius born! He did create an essential ‘Italian Grammar’, in fact the first such book, but as Ariosto must have made use of it, I’m saying no more. My tutor was not impressed by this fact: it all seemed to me to have been a good PR job concocted by Petrarch, a true literary giant who invented the Sonnet, and in this particular case seemed to be playing an éminence grise. Not without copious help from Boccaccio. More anon. On an interesting note, the building where Dante lived is now a restaurant. Mariotto Albertinelli, who was once a painter (his work ‘Annunciation’, 1498, is in the Cathedral of Volterra) abandoned painting for ‘the only true art’ - cooking. He entertained all his artistic colleagues in a tavern called ‘Da Pennello’ (The Brush), in the heart of Florence’s old town, and which is still there today, now called Trattoria del Pennello, in the Via Dante Alighieri.
Besides this controversy, I seriously took up Lucretius and ‘On the Nature of Things’, in translation, which was as racy a book as a young lad could handle. A friend who borrowed it said it was better than Mickey Spillane. It must have been, for I never saw the book again. Necessitating a new, and more mature approach a few years later, taking up Lucretius disclosed a serious and interesting theme which shorn of pantheism, introduced the Epicurean importance of dismissing deities, outlining a life guided by a state of natural phenomena. And for me, ever after, so it is. Despite being an easy way out from the disturbing thought of an afterlife, its theme seemed to me an eminently logical and obvious one in that it addresses the modern fashion of ‘Climate Change’, an obvious truism that is quite beyond man’s wit to circumvent. Volcanoes erupted; Tsunamis battered shores; earthquakes destroyed landscapes; the wind blew; it poured with rain and snowed to its hearts content, all before man appeared on the earth. When the Latin’s arrived they gave it a name: Naturae, which they believed was the course of the world. Naturally!
Dusty bookshops hold many treasures. One such, concerns the aforementioned Boccaccio. Like Dante his passion was a young lady, Princess Maria of Naples, one of the most beautiful and cultivated women of her time who was to become the Fiammetta (perhaps ‘little flame’) of his legendary prose work ‘The Decameron’. I cannot vouch for her beauty, but she presents a pretty discourse in the book. Besides one of the most horrendous descriptions of the brutal plague then raging in Florence frighteningly described in the first chapter, it is a bawdy, often very funny set of tales, by a group of young nobles escaping to the safer confines of their country estates. The ‘treasure’ I’m referring to in this case is listed No 73, of a two volume limited edition of one thousand, printed in 1893 by Lawrence and Bullen, with very fine steel engravings by Louis Chalon.
Although I’ve just recently managed to get the four volumes of Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Painters’ I’ve been dipping into other peoples volumes for more years than I can remember. It’s apparently not without some serious errors, but one can only admire the prodigious effort needed five hundred years ago to assemble a fraction of what he achieved. The very detailed account of Michelangelo, for instance, throws up some interesting facts such as his full name: Michelangelo di Lodovico di Leonardo Buonarroti Simoni – try that one out on your friends who think they know it all! Besides such esoteric facts that his mother, Francesca, was nineteen years old at his birth, the biography runs to 320 pages with the index adding another three. Until 1863 Vasari’s work was the only documental evidence of Buonarroti’s life as according to his will, the Buonarroti archives were sealed, so they could not be accessed.
To complete this Renaissance group the autobiography of Benvento Cellini, sculptor and jeweller, seems to me of double interest, for besides the detailed exposition of his work including his masterpiece ‘Perseus with the head of Medusa’ in Florence, in the book he draws an excellent picture, not always a pretty one, of the society he lived in as well as, perhaps inadvertently, describing his own quarrelsome and rebellious nature. One particularly interesting historical fact described, lays to rest the accusation that Cellini while defending the city during the Sack of Rome in 1527, bragged that he had shot Charles, Constable de Bourbon. Cellini, in his own words, does not claim such a thing, merely stating that, with others, he fired in the direction of Bourbon, who was killed. Florence has chosen to honour their wayward son by a bust set up in the very centre of the Ponte Vecchio looking down the River Arno.
Coming to more modern times ‘The Leopard’ by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa was written a few months before the author’s death in 1957, afterwards becoming the most celebrated and revered novel in Italy. Reading it, you can see why. Never has an aristocratic family declined at so rapid a pace. In two generations it was extinct, mostly through the strange fact that the male progeny were quite incapable of assisting in the creation of male heirs; they were either celibates, impotent or produced females – irrelevant in nineteenth century Sicily. The Dukes of Palma and Prince of Lampedusa were titles founded in the sixteenth century and it was ‘The Leopard’ which sets the glittering scene towards the end of the nineteenth century based on his great grandfather in a world that was on the very cusp of change. Giuseppe was born into a wealthy family, but by the time he reached maturity there were still mouldering palaces, but absolutely not a penny in the bank. ‘The Leopard’ by Visconti is in my Pantheon of films starring unbelievably, Burt Lancaster in the lead role, along with a still attractive Claudia Cardinale. You’ll have to make an evening of it if you watch the DVD, as the story runs for three hours. The author who endured constant financial worries while living in a decaying aristocratic ambience never saw the publication of his novel, receiving a rejection slip even while he was dying of cancer. One year later the novel was published, received the prestigious Strega literary prize, going through over fifty editions, to become a legend.
Another Italian author, though not so hard up as Lampedusa, also suffered rejection through most of his life. Italo Svevo worked in a bank, giving up writing after two failures, settling down to a career in business. After a twenty-year spell he wrote ‘Confessions of Zeno’ a story written in the first person that oscillates round cigarette smoking and the speakers addiction. Consulting a psychiatrist he is told to trace the growth of the habit from the beginning. Hence all the elements of the story are revealed along with his life. It was immediately acclaimed in France, then in Europe, but before it could be published in Italy, Svevo was killed in a car crash. If you want to give up smoking, forget ‘e.fags’ and ‘electro acupuncture’, read Svevo.
It’s possible you might not have come across Italo Calvino’s ‘If On a Winters Night – a Traveller’, so you might also have missed ‘The Path to the Spiders’ Nests’, an autobiographical account of his exploits in the Italian Resistance during the Second World War. It is not full of daring do, but you do get a great sense of always looking over your shoulder, or wondering if your friend is about to whisper your name to the local Fascist militia. It also appears that a ‘Winters Night’ was the most dangerous time for a resistance fighter who used woods and forests to avoid detection. Without the camouflage of leaves they were easily spotted. One to remember next time you’re on the run!
I can’t finish without throwing in Umberto Eco’s ‘Name of the Rose’, which if you have not read, might probably have seen the film. On the other hand you can hardly be blamed if you haven’t read ‘Travels in Hyper Reality’. Eco, a noted university professor turned philosophical critic, presents the book as a series of essays, one might say lectures on a multitude of subjects, some of which were articles in newspapers and magazines. One contemporary interesting chapter notes that today political power does not rely on controlling the army and police, but on that of communications. In one sense it illustrates that the monumental mess of ‘Brexit’ in the UK (a misnomer if ever there was one!) is not the fault of parliament alone, always a noisy, quarrelsome place, unable to function efficiently without large majority governments, but of a media stuffed full of distortions, prejudice and misconceptions confusing and blinding the public through the manipulations of a small cabal of politically motivated individuals. Another, touches on my old prejudice against mass production, with its lack of quality in modern merchandise, another on whether the Beatles are alien to the great musical tradition of the West, which is a somewhat ridiculous hypotheses given they represented an ephemeral, now almost vanished, interlude. Quite an interesting book to browse through.
Did I ever tell you about the teacher who set an essay: “Books I have never read, and have no intention of reading.” One boy piped up, “What’s a book sir? Reading I’ve heard of. It’s up the road from Basingstoke.”